It’s Up To Us to Change the Narrative

I was thinking the other morning about community size, economies of scale, and our perception of other people as human beings worthy of care and respect. In larger communities, where everyone doesn’t know everyone else, the media have quite a lot of power over how we see one another. And now Cameron’s government have passed the Welfare Reform Bill.

I don’t know whether the Daily Fail, the Sun and so on have always vilified the poorest and weakest in society, those reliant on others for help for whatever reason. I struggle to take such articles seriously, as I don’t quite understand how intelligent people can believe them. But I know that the advertisements about benefit fraud, which I started to notice under a Labour government, seemed to be a sign of something very wrong with the way we perceive one another and the way we speak and write of one another. I’d like to remedy that.

In my head, I’d like there to be some requirement for legislators to work with those who their laws will affect the most. I’d like those legislating about welfare reform to work with people who don’t have much money and with the disabled for a year before being allowed to make changes which will affect them. I’d like those who would further privatise the NHS (yes, further privatise — this has been going on for a long time, too) to think about what it might be like to need medical care and simply not be able to afford it, as well as looking at the cost-effectiveness of various systems.

But I think the propaganda may be so strong and so widespread that it can override even personal contact. Victim-blaming happens at all levels, and contact doesn’t always help.

As an example of that, for every GP I’ve had who has been helpful and supportive regarding my own health conditions, I’ve had another who doesn’t think there is anything physically wrong with me. This has led to delays in diagnosis which were mentally very distressing, not to mention physically risky. I remember being told my chronic pain was due to depression, and in the next appointment two weeks later being told I wasn’t “really depressed”. It turned out to be more complicated than that, of course.

Now, GPs aren’t stupid. They’ve been through medical school, and you do need quite a few brain cells to rub together to get through successfully! And they work with people. Yet they still do victim-blaming, even with an articulate patient with good levels of self-awareness. So I have to conclude that the problem we face isn’t one of intelligence or of contact.

I’m inclined to think that instead, the problem is one of narrative. A dominant narrative in the society in which I live is “You Make Your Own Life”. It’s an attractive narrative, because it seduces us into thinking that we can keep ourselves safe, that no matter how bad things get we’ll be OK because our efforts will be effective. And it’s a comfortable narrative for as long as health and wealth hold out, because it absolves us of the responsibility for the plight of anyone around us, even if we’re directly abusive toward them. After all, They Make Their Own Lives, too. And it’s slippery, this narrative, because we do seem to consciously choose our actions, we do think about consequences, some of our efforts do pay off. So obviously we must be in control of our circumstances!

But it’s wrong. You don’t Make Your Own Life. I don’t Make My Own Life. Not entirely, and the wealth of self-help literature out there might be just a small hint that none of us do.

Now, I don’t believe in full environmental determinism, and I do believe in free will. We always have a choice in how to respond to our situation. But we make this choice out of limited options of varying acceptability, and with limited foresight. Every choice includes risk. We don’t get to decide on our circumstances, our limitations, any more than we get to decide on our biological parents. And there is no isolation: all of our choices affect everyone else, and all of everyone else’s choices affect us, to some degree. We exist in a networked community with 7 billion interdependent active members, as well as countless previous members whose legacy still forms our environment. We don’t make our own circumstances, and our circumstances affect our choices. We make our own choices, but we don’t make our own life.

Yet this is the dominant narrative! The poor are poor, we’re told, because they don’t sufficiently desire wealth to take the necessary action to acquire it — so we must change the incentives by lowering their benefits to make them hungry for work. (Literally.) Never mind the economic reasons why this won’t actually help (people who don’t have enough to eat will spend less, not more, and the economy will suffer further as a result, with fewer jobs and lower productivity…), the poor are poor because they choose to be poor and therefore they deserve to be poor. The disabled are obviously only suffering disability, we’re told, because being disabled is a pretty good lifestyle compared to hard graft. So we must change their incentives by taking away what support they have and then they’ll learn how to “adapt” to their conditions. As for the sick and the elderly, they wouldn’t need so much medical care if they took proper care of themselves, so we’ll cut the NHS: that will encourage them to develop healthy habits!

Gentle readers, this is all preposterous. People don’t choose to be poor*: if you don’t have enough money to live on, getting enough of it is not trivial. People don’t choose to be disabled: in case you hadn’t noticed, blindness, deafness, wheelchair use, and long-term illnesses are things that happen to people, not lifestyle choices. People don’t choose to get sick: if they did, would anyone ever suffer from a common cold? People don’t choose to get old, despite what the beauty creams would have you believe, and nobody has the intention of aging badly.

But these atrocities are what the “You Make Your Own Life” narrative leads to. This narrative has made our society sick, so sick that we’re now actually doing the things in the last-but-one paragraph. Yes, I said “we”; whether or not they do so with our full support, the government act on our behalf.

I think we face two challenges here. One is to ensure that the vulnerable among us still receive care; this is going to be a massive effort, and I’m sure one at which we will fail in some cases, but we do have to try.

The second challenge is to find a better narrative and, somehow, make it supplant the one I’ve been talking about. We need a narrative that is more attractive than the idea that each of us can save ourselves, more comfortable than the idea that other people’s problems are nothing to do with us.

I haven’t found such a narrative outside of religion; the closest I come is the idea that we are all children of God and therefore worthy of respect and care and love regardless of our circumstances. But the “You Make Your Own Life” narrative is so pernicious that sometimes it actually invades religion, turning into “If you are ill/poor/old/disabled/unhappy it’s because you didn’t pray enough/love God enough/do what we say God wants.” Grace becomes the means by which we are wealthy and healthy and favoured in this world, rather than the mystery which prompts us to help others. Ugh! This caricature is not what we need. On a deeper level I think religion does have a lot to offer, but simply making a more religious society won’t solve the problem unless we can also purge religion of make-your-own-life-itis.

I believe that human beings have automatic worth, not based in ability or achievement or economic activity but personhood. I believe that human beings are interconnected and interdependent, each contributing to but not controlling our own wellbeing and that of everyone else on the planet. I believe that if anyone suffers at the hands of another, we are all much worse off, and when we work to help one another we all gain.

I believe it is urgently important that we make sure everyone knows this, especially those in power and those who will be in power in five or ten or fifty years. And because of the stickiness of the existing dominant narrative, it’s going to be an uphill battle to do it.

Now what?

*Edit 12/04/2012: It has been pointed out to me that some people, usually those who are members of a religious order, do choose to be poor, at least in terms of material possessions. If any of them would like to comment on what their overarching narrative is, and how we might replicate such a narrative in wider society, I would be grateful. I think many people today crave such simplicity, but mostly those who are well-off enough to choose what they would give up.

Alive and well.

I’m not in London at the moment, and where I am is perfectly safe.

St Andrew’s Leytonstone will be open tomorrow from 11am to 3pm for prayer and for discussing concerns and responses to the London riots.

I might do a more in-depth post later. In the meantime if you want to help please see for information on how to do so.

Obligatory Rapture Post

First of all, I don’t really believe in this rapture stuff. I’ve mostly been ignoring it.

But, just for the record: if the “righteous” or the elect or whatever are taken up into Heaven and everyone else (atheists, heretics, sinners, quarrelers, people who like “Jerusalem” and so on and so forth) is left on earth to await some final judgement day, I’d rather stay here.

There’ll be a lot of work to do.

Life as usual

This morning I drifted in and out of groggy sleep… you know the sort, when you’ve set the alarm with the best of intentions but don’t actually have to get up right away and a few more minutes sleep seem the better option. I heard someone on the radio speaking of a death, of rejoicing in the streets, and thought, “Oh, that’ll be Osama bin Laden, then” before rolling over, too somnolent to have any strong opinion. So it was no real surprise to me later to find Twitter all a-tweet with the news.

It may be just the peer selectiion effect, of course, but the overwhelming impression I got was of righteous dismay at reactions to the news. Choice verses from Proverbs were being quoted, as well as one 9/11 survivor who was just saddened to see yet another person killed. Then, of course, there were the worthy objections to someone, even a terrorist, being killed without a trial — though others rightly questioned whether a fair trial would have been possible. And of course there were the pragmatic voices, pointing out that the result of vengeance, of making a martyr of a charismatic leader, can only be further bloodshed as the cycle of violence continues.

All of these are entirely correct, of course.

Participation in tit-for-tat wars is almost never a good idea. Osama bin Laden may well have been an extremist who doesn’t represent the views of the vast majority of Muslims, but there will still be extremists who are upset and angered by his death. I can’t say that makes me feel any safer, in London.

A fair trial may well have been difficult to ensure, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been attempted. Justice and vengeance are not the same thing. Was it truly impossible to capture this man? One argument I saw said that if he had been captured and detained, there would have been countless hostages taken in order to demand his release. But keeping in mind the pragmatists, aren’t we all now hostage to those who would retaliate?

Prooftexting is rarely helpful, but the point so many people tried to make today — that Osama bin Laden was a human being and it is wrong to rejoice in his violent death — is one I agree with. I don’t really mind whether you couch this in theological terms, stating that every creature is a beloved child of God, made in God’s image and therefore worthy of love and respect, or whether less theist principles about the dignity and worth of human beings or the senselessness of violence are more agreeable to you. If you were saddened, disgusted, frustrated or dismayed at the triumphant celebrations of killing, rest assured that you were not alone. I was unsurprised, but certainly disappointed. Humanity should be able to do better than this.

It is seductively easy to talk online with my peers and sigh and tut about people’s reactions, though. “What is the world coming to?” we ask, as if we have never cheered at another’s loss or our own gain. It takes little effort to disapprove of the lack of any attempt at a trial, fair or not. It is not difficult to chime in with my own doubts about whether the lack of this one person really makes the world a safer place.

None of that is enough, though. Peace will not be achieved by spending a day or a week criticising the sorts of decisions most of us hope or pray we never have to make. Justice will not be served by focusing on the end result of a systemic culture of competition where might is taken as right. Those people whose raucous glee so upsets us will not become more compassionate as a result of our condemnation, however righteous we might feel about it.

It is not enough to sigh and shake our heads and go back to life as usual. “Life as usual” is part of the problem. “Life as usual” got us where we are. Life as usual means nothing will change, for us or for those we eagerly criticise or all too readily fear.

People hurt one another because they feel threatened. People are vulnerable to extremist ideologies because they feel threatened. Wherever people do not have enough to eat or drink, wherever people are denied access to medical care, wherever people struggle to have even their basic needs met, there will be strife, warfare, and suffering. And all that need happen for suffering and evil to exist is for good people to do nothing. We are all interconnected and our daily actions affect six billion other people (and counting). These problems are systemic and we are part of the system, like it or not. It’s up to us to change it.

Instead of continuing with life as usual, we need to take positive steps toward creating a better world. A culture of peace will take root where there is trust and cooperation. A culture of justice will grow when we honestly examine our own actions and choose fairness over giving ourselves some advantage. A culture of compassion will thrive when we treat one another with loving kindness despite the risks, despite the costs.

Let’s make “life as usual” something that we can all live with.

Building a New Society

At the weekend I met a friend for dinner. She’s quite a bit more politically active than I am, not to mention being a trained economist. We are both very concerned about the human cost of the cuts brought in by the current, Tory-led government. But she is concerned, rightly, that my response — that we must all participate in caring for one another and reduce reliance on state provision — is unhelpful.

Her objections, as I understand them, are good ones:

1) A simple “I will work harder” approach, where charitable people and organisations take on additional burdens while banks re-instate bonuses, does not address the root of the problem.

2) The state has access to economies of scale which are unavailable to us everyday folk.

3) Relatedly, the state is in a position to be fairer in resource allocation than private companies or charities can.

I can understand the worry that volunteerism is exactly the position the current government is manipulating us into. It’s hard not to have a sense of growing dismay as we are asked, again and again, to make more and more bricks as the daily supply of straw is reduced. But my response here is not an endorsement of the cuts, but rather a pragmatic reaction to the way things are. If I don’t take action to help the least fortunate, I am colluding in a system that allows people to fall through the cracks. My volunteering at a homeless shelter isn’t going to change government policy, but writing to my MP and campaigning in the street are not going to give anyone a safe place to sleep.

The economies of scale available to the government are a strength and I don’t propose that we can find an alternative overnight. Specialist care is needed and it is difficult to see how small, locally-run initiatives could hope to meet that need. I know some basic first aid but that doesn’t qualify me to treat cancer patients! I don’t suggest that state access to specialist care can or should be abolished, especially not in the short term.

However, I also think that some of the economics of scale previously only widely available to the state or to large corporations are, in fact, becoming less clearly limited. Our opportunity to communicate with one another is more extensive than it has ever been. I believe there is huge potential for economies of scale to emerge, and things like Wikipedia are only scratching the surface of what is possible. It’s important to note, too, that this is not just about online interaction, not just about kids who haven’t left home sitting editing the article on photosynthesis or bloggers prattling away to a nonexistent audience: the notion of a sharp divide between “online” and “real life” is a false dichotomy in any case. We’re starting to see this with the likes of Kickstarter and FundBreak which use online crowdsourcing to fund projects which may well be offline. There’s a lot of noise at times, but the level of connectivity is incredible and if we can find a way to coordinate our efforts, the government no longer has a monopoly on economies of scale.

Another advantage of state-run rather than crowd-driven care is that it can be administered fairly. If you tick the boxes, you get the benefit — regardless of your accent, gender, skin colour, sexual orientation, religion or intelligence. At least, that’s how it works in theory. In practice, box-ticking systems are systems where people will jump through hoops and it is pretty much impossible to make a selection system complex enough to be completely fair. It becomes paradoxical, because the more complex the system is the higher the barriers to access. If you don’t believe this, ask anyone who’s had to fill out student loan forms!

I’m willing to accept a certain amount of “waste” from people gaming the benefits system, but another serious problem with state care is that delegating caring for one another to the state — reducing our obligations to paying tax, voting if we feel like getting involved, and maybe writing to an MP on issues we really care about — means we can exist in a little bubble of our peers, telling ourselves that the homeless person begging by the Tube station isn’t our problem because there is state care available. Far from reducing localism and NIMBYism, I propose that delegating our societal responsibilities onto the state actually fosters the sort of isolated attitude that renders people unwilling to bear the collective costs of supporting one another. Letting someone else deal with the nitty-gritty allows us to reduce our awareness of the interdependence of people and to fool ourselves into thinking that this is actually a pure meritocracy (it isn’t) and that we have our privileges because we’ve worked for them and not because we’ve been incredibly fortunate. It’s never that simple, but we’re upstanding citizens who pay our taxes and vote, and so we walk past the woman who is sleeping rough rather than go back to her abusive boyfriend and we congratulate ourselves on having done so well. Next thing you know, you’ve got the tabloid rags blaming benefits recipients (or asylum seekers, or some other disadvantaged group that receives some pittance of state support) for economic recession and people actually believe it. Sound familiar? It’s where we already are. The government we have now is not an enemy of our society: it is a product of our society. We, collectively, have created this monstrosity.

It’s up to us to build a new society. That doesn’t mean just getting the current government to take proper responsibility for the care of the citizens who elected them (or voted for someone else).

A new society would be one where the government cannot be held hostage by the banks.

A new society would be one where the state works with people, not against them, for the good of all.

A new society would be one where we use financial resources to reduce human costs, not human resources to reduce financial ones.

A new society would be one where we contribute to economies of scale.

A new society would be one where protest works a lot better than it does now.

A new society would be one where we ask, “How can I help you?” rather than “How can I benefit from you?”, and where we are not afraid or ashamed to ask for help ourselves when we need it.

I don’t have all the answers about how to create such a society. But I think it goes much further than public protest and much further than reversing the cuts. It involves all of us thinking about how we live, how our actions affect others, and whether it is actually okay to walk on by while someone else suffers. Then it involves us choosing to live in ways that value human life.

It’s up to us.

It’s Up To Us

I’ve spent a lot of time and energy this week thinking about the Comprehensive Spending Review cuts, as well as the recent cuts to science and education in this country.

A lot of that time has been spent cursing under my breath at the Great British Public for voting in the Tories — did people honestly think they wouldn’t be horrible? — and at the LibDems for selling out and allowing their coalition partners to get away with this. A further chunk has been spent in fuming ire at the banking bailouts of 2008 and the various unpaid tax bills of large corporations. I find it hard to believe that the money so freely given away by the government is justified by the contribution the banks and large corporations make to the economy.

None of those are useful responses.

I think that the cuts to education and benefits are wrong, but I also think they’re very short-sighted. If my neighbour’s house is on fire, you can bet I’m going to be there with a bucket trying to help put it out, not only because of any love I might have for my neighbour but also because I know full well that my house is next. Poverty and lack of access to good education don’t work as fast as fire, but I know that the world is so interconnected that what affects the poorest in our society will have knock-on effects for the rest of us. Only the rich and very rich can insulate themselves from this with their money.

For the rest of us, I think it’s been clear for some time that relying on the government safety net of cradle-to-grave welfare is just not going to work. The government is far too beholden to a financial services industry with not enough regulation to prevent bubbles, and has forgotten about Keynesian economics or about any sort of duty to act on behalf of voters. Single-provider welfare doesn’t work because it is so vulnerable to abuse. This is just as true now as when the Church was the arbiter of assistance.

The idea of the “Big Society” that has been waved about is, in some ways, a solution to this. I don’t think the current government really believes in it: if they did, they’d be funding Big Society projects to get us started rather than removing vital support from the most vulnerable people in our society. But the lack of government support for the Big Society doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea in and of itself.

Imagine a society where everyone volunteers for something, or donates a substantial portion of their income to charities. Imagine a society where people can form meaningful friendships with people different than themselves. Imagine a society where if you fall on hard times, there is not just one route to get help but three or four; where everyone is concerned with the wellbeing of their neighbours (near and far — we are all neighbours), where people are involved in deciding how resources are used, where even the most vulnerable are valued as having something to contribute. Imagine a society where nearly nobody is on government benefits because their communities take care of their needs. That’s the Big Society, as I imagine it. I don’t think it’ll be easy to build, and there are serious issues of competence in relying entirely on volunteerism (but this could be offset by those who don’t volunteer but instead donate money). There will always be an element of waste in that there will always be people who game the system, even if that system is actually many systems which overlap. But I do think that the vision of a Big Society where people care for one another and the vast majority of basic needs are met is one that is possible and is worth striving for.

What’s interesting about this is that there are parallels in access to information. For most of the 20th century we had mostly one-way broadcast media; that is now changing to networked media. There are advantages and disadvantages of this and it is becoming apparent that the peer selection effect is very strong now compared to the days when one had less choice in one’s social surroundings. Rather than the internet being one huge network where everyone pays attention to everyone else, it functions more as a system of networks which sometimes overlap. I’m on the edges of at least two such networks that spring to mind immediately, one full of church folks and one full of geeks, but there are several more.

I don’t think the Big Society is going to happen overnight and I don’t think that we can expect the current government to lift a finger to help us, but I don’t think that has to prevent us working for change. I’ve been trying to say this on Twitter for a day or two and mostly I am getting compared to Boxer in Orwell’s Animal Farm, who, faced with each new difficulty in the fourlegs-led revolution, vows to work harder. I’ve been told that I shouldn’t be trying to take up the slack because that’s exactly what our rich Tory overlords want me to do. I’ve been told that asking Vodafone UK to pay their £6bn tax bill would be fruitless, because our government wouldn’t spend that money on benefits for the disabled but on police-state surveillance and guns to kill brown people.

The reason I think this is different is that, while network communication (rather than uneven broadcast) doesn’t guarantee democratization of information access, it does make it easier, in the same way that Gutenberg’s printing press and increases in literacy brought about huge changes in the society of the time. We have amazing tools for connecting to one another and people are recognising that it’s about relationships.

I do think that organised resistance does need to be part of this, and I’ve signed the statement committing to get involved with that.

I also don’t think that my signing a petition is going to have much immediate effect. I don’t think that the risks of going ahead with creating a better society outweigh the need to get on and do it. Signing a petition or a statement will not give a homeless person a safe place to sleep. Volunteering with a homeless shelter will. Writing to my MP will probably not change how my high-street bank uses my money, but switching to something more ethical will. That doesn’t mean I don’t sign the petitions or write to my MP, but it means I do need to think about how my decisions affect everyone else, not just fob them off onto the government.

The government, as far as I am concerned, has proven that it cannot be trusted to help.

It’s up to us to build the Big Society.

The government won’t enforce tax laws, so it’s up to us to withdraw or withhold custom from the worst tax evaders.

The government won’t stop banks lending irresponsibly, so it’s up to us to provide debt counseling and aid to those who’ve been wooed into “cheap” credit they can’t afford.

The government won’t protect disadvantaged people from destitution, so it’s up to us to provide food and shelter for those who have none.

It’s up to us to teach one another the skills we need to survive.

It’s up to us to strengthen the weak. It’s up to us to care for the sick. It’s up to us to comfort the brokenhearted. It’s up to us to protect the vulnerable.

I’m not saying it should be that way, but that it is. Like it or loathe it, it’s up to us.

What are you doing to help?